By its name, “What Girls Are Made Of” (Carolrhoda Lab 2017) by Elana K. Arnold might be a women’s health book like “Our Body, Ourselves.” But it’s a novel. However, it could serve as a woman’s health guide.
In no-nonsense prose, we watch Nina handle her first period, first gynecological exam, intercourse, abortion and heartbreak. What makes this book important? It’s a story about the erasure of women.
Nina watches her mother endure yearly miscarriages, marking each when her glass of vodka reappears on the dining table. Her mother says there’s no such thing as unconditional love — not even for mother and child. Mother is a beautiful rich iceberg and a non-working art historian. Her father supplies his family with a luxurious (cold) house and all the trimmings. That’s his role.
Nina, 16 years old, knows that her boyfriend Seth’s love is conditional. Those conditions include: She may not call him (he’s rude) and they must have sex. Nina and her best friend have been in love with Seth since fourth grade, but Nina won him and dropped her friend to be with him.
Seth calls the shots — what they’ll do, where they’ll do it and the music they’ll listen to. The reader knows that Seth is a jerk, and Nina has a self-esteem issue.
Is the issue Nina’s background? Her not being unconditionally loved? But there are plenty of teenage girls who are unconditionally loved by a parent, and yet their major job is pleasing boys. After all these years, how can this be true?
The fact that the book has been short-listed for the National Book Award says it’s an important, necessary read.
Before high school, when her parents attempted to break up, Nina’s mother took her to Italy — a trip meant for the parents. Mother and daughter visited endless museums in Rome, Florence and small villages. They viewed thousands of tortured virgin saints — her mother’s specialty. Nina sees paintings of…